Proper 28B: Yearning

Longing for GodOLD TESTAMENT: 1 Samuel 1: 4-20

To read the Old Testament passage

The household of Elkanah and his wives Hannah and Penninah does not look promising at first. It looks instead like a figure for all Israel: Elkanah comes from a distinguished line, and he is pious according to the order of the day, but the household is marked by internal conflict. Penninah has children, but Hannah, whom Elkanah loves, has none. The LORD has “closed her womb.” For this Penninah “provoke[s] her severely,” year after year. Like Israel, the household is torn by rivalry. And like Israel, its future – at least through Hannah – is in doubt.

In this crisis, Hannah models a faithful response. She weeps. She rejects her share of sacrifices that have been handled by the sons of Eli. And she silently refuses her husband’s attempts to console her. Hannah will not accept the half-comforts of the present order. She goes instead to present herself “before the LORD”.  Hannah weeps, prays, and makes a vow. She prays for God to see her. And she prays for God to remember her – as Israel might pray for God to remember the covenant. She prays within the frames of the old order of the judges, promising, like Samson’s mother, that she will dedicate the boy as a Nazirite. But her prayer also reaches beyond the present order. Hannah asks God to do a new thing.

Hannah’s prayer is heard by Eli, the aging priest who embodies whatever is left of the virtues of the old order. He rebukes her, thinking she is drunk – if Eli is not corrupt, like his sons, he still cannot quite recognize the new thing that is already emerging in Hannah’s prayer. But Hannah answers him sharply, “No, my lord…” . No! And Eli hears her. He can still recognize Hannah’s faith. He blesses her and adds his endorsement to her prayer. Hannah departs as if her prayer were already answered. She eats and drinks and shares the company of her husband. And, “in due time” – in God’s time – she conceives and bears a son. She names him Samuel.  Samuel would end the time of the judges and usher in the monarchy.  God was doing a new thing in Israel.  Hannah’s name, which means “grace”, is fitting for someone who would essentially birth the beginning of the monarchy with a bold act of faith.

Now the notion of infertility is not new in the Bible—think of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, even, later, Elizabeth.  But barrenness was a source of shame.  And it was always thought to be the fault of the woman.  So, taunted and rejected, Hannah enters a long line of women who suffered because of this.  And, on top of it, Hannah was part of an unjust system that didn’t even acknowledge her pain. But rather than folding into it, she stood up and prayed. Her tears and her songs point to this injustice.  It becomes a song of revolution.  The mighty will fall and the poor will be raised.  Over and over we are told that God “opens wombs”, birthing new life.  But perhaps the story is not merely about God answering prayers but rather the story of one who yearned for God.  Maybe her yearning, her way of “returning grace” to God, was the answer to the prayer itself.  Our deepest longings themselves often reflect this “upside-down” kingdom that God envisions.  And in those longings, God will open wombs and new life will come to be.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does “returning grace” look like in your life?
  3. What does prayer mean for you in your life?
  4. What would it mean for us to yearn for something better?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 10: 11-14 (15-18) 19-25

To read the passage from Hebrews

An intimate and frank relationship with God, openness with one another, and bold public witness that perseveres in the face of opposition – these are the characteristics of the confident community portrayed in today’s Scripture reading. The text invites us to a frankness of speech that deals confidently with the barriers of guilt and shame that often divide communities, and with the barriers of timidity and fear that hinder our public witness to the transforming power of the gospel. Such boldness and confidence is grounded in what Christ has done, dealing with the condemning power of sin once-for-all, and what Christ will do, establishing justice on the earth. The word, parresia, (“confidence”), means being free to speak one’s mind, not being ashamed. It means boldness, courage, fearlessness, and joy. It is those things that belong to freedom. In Roman society, slaves did not exercise that boldness. But in the society of God, we are free to have confidence and to be assured of God’s presence with us.

Even if we do find its elaborate imagery of Jesus as high priest and sacrifice somewhat strange, we can affirm what it clearly intends: God’s Presence is enough. And even if we cannot join with the argument that such once and for all-ness came only with Jesus and was not present earlier, we can affirm that this is the truth which we celebrate in Jesus: his life poured out in compassion for others was indeed the pouring out of God’s life, the life we recognize as being active  wherever people are attuned to it – in the church, in ancient Israel, in many and various ways throughout the world and throughout history where God has been before and beyond us.

In some ways, the Letter to the Hebrews is a treatise on organized religion. But it is not that religion of rules and memberships and those who are in and those who are out. It tells us how to be a community—a loving, encouraging community in the name of Jesus Christ. 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once said “the spiritual life is, for the most part, the obstacle to a life lived in the Spirit.” The writing does not tell us how to be religious; it doesn’t teach us how to be spiritual; it talks of how to live within the Spirit of God, within that “upside-down” Kingdom. It teaches us how to be the worshipping Kingdom of God together. It teaches us how to experience God’s Presence, speak in boldness, and encourage each other.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What would a church that encourages each other look like?
  3. What does it mean to you to live within the Spirit of God?
  4. What does this boldness in Christ mean?

GOSPEL: Mark 13: 1-8

To read the Gospel passage

The disciples were apparently in awe of the temple.  It was magnificent in structure.  Supposedly it covered an area five football fields long and three football fields wide and was covered in white marble and gold, to put it in perspective.  There is debate as to whether the Gospel according to Mark was written before the destruction of this great temple or just after.  Regardless, it was a time of great political crisis and out of this apocalyptic literature began to flourish.

And Jesus is warning the disciples to hold their course, to be faithful, even in the face of suffering, even in the face of the cross.  It is a reminder to be aware of what it is and who it is in which you put your trust.  On what are you building your faith?  What cost of discipleship are you willing to bear?

Elie Wiesel in his book Memoirs: All Rivers Lead to the Sea talks about his childhood in Eastern Europe and the suffering of the Jews even before the Nazis came. His rabbi used to say, “Abraham, the first of the patriarchs, was a better Jew than you. He was a thousand times better than all of us, but the Midrash tells us that he was cast into a burning furnace. So how do you expect to breeze through life without a scratch? Daniel was wiser than you and more pious, yet he was condemned to die in a lion’s den. And you dream of living your life without suffering?”

Here, Jesus was not merely proclaiming destruction. He was prodding those listening to him to change the script, to change that which gets their attention, that which gets their loyalty. He was reminding them to live their life but to yearn for something more. He was pushing them to look beyond what they saw, beyond the stones, beyond the buildings, beyond the beautiful paraments and the other articles of worship, beyond what people are wearing or where they were schooled or what they do for a living.  None of that makes sense in God’s vision.  It is meaningless.  God’s vision is about us, all of us together.  Jesus was telling them that “everything will be alright”, not in a trite, sappy sense where he pats his followers on the head and then walks away, but with a promise of something better just up ahead.

Like any apocalyptic writing, it is trying to make sense of that which really doesn’t make sense.  It is trying to bring comfort to people who are suffering and scared.  It should not be read as a way of “figuring out” when the world will end, or Jesus will return, or whatever you believe will mark the next phase of existence.  It is, rather, about hope, about learning to live, as Hannah did, with that yearning for the new life that God holds.  “Apocalypse” is the Greek word for “revelation”, for seeing.  Jesus was trying to open the door to a vision of what could be.  And, when you think about it, if these are the “birthpangs”, then the journey has only just begun.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How do you think most people would read this in today’s world?
  3. What does the image of the “birthpangs” mean for you as it relates to this Scripture?
  4. What vision are we called to see that we are perhaps missing?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Countless writings underlie the urgency for our modern world, with all its bustle and noise, of rediscovering the value of meditation, of silence of prayer, of devotion.  I preached it before I practiced it.  If one is to help the world towards its rediscovery, one must practice it oneself.  The religious life must be fed.  We devote years to studying a trade or profession.  Ought we show less perseverance in acquiring the presence of God? (Paul Tournier)

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. (Henry David Thoreau)

Your life is something opaque, not transparent, as long as you look at it in an ordinary human way.  But if you hold it up against the light of God’s goodness, it shines and turns transparent, radiant and bright.  And then you ask yourself in amazement:  Is this really my own life I see before me? (Albert Schweitzer)

 

 

Closing

 

O God, who out of nothing brought everything that is, out of what I am bring more of what I dream but haven’t dared; direct my power and passion to creating life where there is death, to putting flesh of action on bare-boned intentions, to lighting fires against the midnight of indifference, to throwing bridges of care across canyons of loneliness; so I can look on creation, together with you, and, behold, call it very good; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

 

(“Bring More of What I Dream”, from Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, Ted Loder, p. 109)

 

 

Proper 27B: Redeemed

Ruth & Naomi (He Qi, 1994)
Ruth & Naomi (He Qi, 1994)

OLD TESTAMENT: Ruth 3: 1-5, 4: 13-17

Read the passage from the Book of Ruth

This is part of what is essentially the conclusion of the story of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi. Leading up to this, we should note that it is the famine in Bethlehem that drives Naomi and her husband and their family away looking for food. While there, Naomi loses both her husband and her two sons, leaving the three wives to fend for themselves in a world that was anything but kind to women. Naomi’s other daughter-in-law returns to her own family but Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi. Eventually, they hear that they can return to Judah, which they do. But when they get there, there is a need to find food and make a living, so Ruth goes out into the fields to get the gleanings, eventually coming to a field that is owned by a wealthy relative of Naomi’s, Boaz.

“Gleaning” is a technical term in Israel. By some laws, found again in Deuteronomy, this time in 24:21 (the levirate marriage law that drove Naomi’s Bethlehem road fantasy was also found in that book), reaping a field in Israel always had to take account of the poor and disadvantaged in the land. Hired hands were to harvest the field of the owner, but any grain that they missed in the first pass through the field must be left in the field for the strangers, the orphans, the foreigners, and the widows. It was a meager and difficult way to survive, but at least it offered a tiny meal for those who had nothing.

The reading today picks up with Naomi telling Ruth of her plan to make the most of this opportunity. The plan involves the deception of Boaz. Ruth is to lie down next to Boaz when he has eaten and become drunk after the winnowing. To ‘uncover the feet’ generally has sexual connotations and the plan seems to be one in which Boaz is to be made to believe that he has taken sexual advantage of Ruth. At the same time the story does not indicate that anything in fact happened between the Ruth and Boaz. All that has to be achieved is to make Boaz think something has. Boaz, being an upright man and knowing Ruth’s reputation will ‘do the right thing’ by her, which means marry her even though such is not legally demanded of him. But one obstacle needs to be dealt with first. There is one, who remains unnamed in the story, who is closer in kinship to Naomi and Ruth than Boaz (perhaps a cousin or something), and who, according to law, needs to be given the first option of marriage.

In a way the whole story has focused around the issue of family heritage. The rest of Chapter 3 tells of the execution of Naomi’s scheme, of Boaz’s response and, in Ruth 4, of dealing with the unnamed relative, who in the end is not willing to take up his kinship responsibility for Ruth. In the second half of today’s reading Ruth marries Boaz and bears a son to him. The focus then shifts back to Naomi and her grandson. The women bless the Lord, who it is clear has been the silent mover behind the scene for both good and ill. They speak of one who will be ‘a restorer of life and a nourisher in one’s old age. It is unclear whether the women speak of the Lord or Boaz or the baby boy. Indeed, this ambiguity may well be deliberate. We see from the women naming the child and the small genealogical note in v. 17, that the child will be the grandfather of David, who in some traditions becomes the ancestor of a messiah to come. The sense of ‘a restorer of life’ is not only in terms of the immediate story, i.e. one who secures the future for Naomi and Ruth, but also of one who restores the future life of the nation.

Overall, the sense of mutual commitment between Naomi and Ruth is ultimately the source and mark of divine blessing. Only once in the entire story is the word “love” used and it is used to describe the relationship between these two strong and determined women. This is the kind of love that molds and drives the universe. If you look at the first chapter of Matthew, you will see the line of succession that is believed to end with Jesus, that includes “Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David…”

In the final analysis, the biblical women Ruth and Naomi are simply metaphors, models of all the women of the world who push and prod and guide and give support to the rest of us through all the trying moments of life, however momentous, however mundane.

Each of us can look back on the women who were Naomis for us—older women because of whom our lives were changed.  Each of us remembers with concern—with pride—the young Ruths in our lives who poised to take one step and then, despite our best advice, took what became for both our sakes an even better one.

The Ruths and Naomis of the human estate make the world go round.  Not one of us can get through the phases of our separate flowerings without their promptings.  Without them growth is static, the worst happens, all of life’s inevitables look impossible.  The Ruths and Naomis of the world take the measure of what we think we cannot surmount alone and show us that it is vincible…

In the Book of Ruth the whole world is new again.  Relationships have been righted.  The outcastes have been taken in.  The lowly have been raised up.  A new generation of men—represented by a boy-child—comes to inherit a cosmos where women are its co-creators.  In Ruth, we get a glimpse into God’s world and find that it runs just the opposite of ours.

The implications of the Ruth story for women today pale whatever assumptions, cemented by generations of custom, may still cloud their lives in any institution, in every part of the world.  It is the spiritual Magna Carta of women.  Ruth lives on in Hebrew Scripture to remind us that origin and destiny are not the same thing.  Naomi lives on to call generation after generation of women to begin again, whatever our ages, to make life for ourselves, to refuse to wait for someone else to swoop down to makes us happy, to fear nothing, and risk anything that develops the dream in our own hearts, to learn to believe in ourselves as women, to find ourselves in one another and in that way to become of more value to the world around us than we have ever been before, to see ourselves as carriers of the Word of God still to be said, still to be heard…

The Book of Ruth is about redemption, indeed, but it is as much about the redemption of Boaz and the nation, about the family and the culture, about the next generation of men and the generation of women, about the righteousness of religion and the salvation of religiosity, about us and the disjointed world we take for granted, as it is about the redemption of Ruth and Naomi.  It is a book about women helping women to break the isolation of powerlessness that affects every other man, woman, and child alive.

It is a book to be written into every woman’s—and man’s—spiritual life.  And the book is incomplete until every woman writes the rest of it herself. (Excerpt from The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Women’s Life, by Joan Chittister, p. ix, 88-89, 90)

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this story say to you about God and about our relationships with each other?
  3. Is there anything that is bothersome in this story for you?
  4. Where do you find yourself in this story?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 9: 24-28

Read the passage from Hebrews

In this passage, the author depicts that Christ has done whatever and all things necessary so that we may know that we are forgiven and look confidently toward salvation. Keep in mind that, just as we are, the first century Christians were trying to make sense out of what had happened to Jesus. People began to hail Christ’s death not as a defeat but as a victory that released life for others. In other words, “He died for us.” This was not meant, as some modern interpretations would suggest, to be an understanding that God somehow schemed up this violence in order to satisfy rules about payback for our sins but rather the notion of Jesus intentionally taking the suffering unto himself.

The writing in Hebrews is, to say the least, complicated. It was complicated even when it was written. It represented a total shift in how people viewed the access to the Divine. Since the writer’s intended audience consisted of “the Hebrews,” or Israelites of a time after Christ, the arguments would have been quite profoundly powerful, because the listeners were well versed in the old ways that the writer compares unfavorably with Christ’s way. (This is why Hebrews is often interpreted as being a bit “anti-Semitic”. I don’t think that’s what the writer intended. It’s just the way some seemingly well-meaning Christians take it. Perhaps instead, the writer was exhorting his or her readers to take what they know, to take what was important for them in their religious and spiritual life, and go farther with it, go toward the Encounter with the Divine to which it points.)

So being part of the redeemed body of Christ today means we can experience eternal reality in its fullest, richest, clearest, most profound way even now, without anything else really happening. We have been set free from worrying about whether or not we relate to God and whether or not God has a place for us in the ongoing Creation. We are set free to live in the presence of Christ. We are, though, engaged in constant and intentional spiritual waiting for what God will do next. Part of being Christian is being called to a wonderful sense of hopeful expectation. Hebrews challenges our somewhat narrow focus of what Christ and being with Christ holds and calls us to something new, perhaps calls even us to go a bit farther toward a true encounter with the Divine.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does that sense of “hopeful expectation” mean for you?
  3. Do you think we really grasp the idea that what Christ has done is once and for all? How does that play into various Christian understandings today?
  4. What does this say about our images of God?

GOSPEL: Mark 12: 38-44

Read the passage from The Gospel According to Mark

Once again, the writer of The Gospel According to Mark is making a statement against the corruption for which judgment will come for the old system.  It is in effect a warning against the way that we often allow the sacred and the holy to become corrupted and instead turn toward our way of doing things rather than God’s.  Interestingly, in this passage, the hero is not Jesus but the woman.  The scribes exploit and grab from their seat of wealth, but this woman gives everything from her poverty.  Comparatively, those well-versed in the ways of the faith are spiritually poor and this poor, probably uneducated woman is rich beyond all measure.

This woman would have been seen as pathetic, probably a beggar, the poorest of the poor.  The Greek is ptoche, which would mean “extremely poor”.  It hits us in the face in several ways.  First, those clergy and elevated laity, being greeted with respect, getting the best seats in the house, so to speak, are presented not only as bad leaders but as out and out hypocrites.  After all, what do these things of honor mean for our discipleship?  And then the woman…while those respected leaders carefully count out their tithes, proud of their giving patterns, she gives everything she has.  She walks home to nothing.  The blessing comes in the realization not that we cannot have nice things or reap respect but in an awareness that everything that we have, everything that we are, is of God.  It is not a test of how much money we have in the bank, but what that money means for us.  The question is on what do we depend?

Where previously we connected dependence with oppression and depression, Jesus shows us that our dependence on God leads to joy and thanksgiving. If God is running the universe and ruling my life, I no longer have to save myself, prove myself or justify myself. I’m the work of God’s hands. I rest and work in those hands and I shall die in those hands. To be free of those hands would be death to me, because in them is life abundant.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What is your personal reaction to this passage?
  3. How does this speak to our society and our way of thinking about money, about leadership, and about one’s place in society?
  4. How do we look upon poverty in this day? What does that say about us as a society and as Christians?
  5. What would it mean to give not out of our abundance but out of our need?
  6. What does this say about gratitude?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Gratitude is the intention to count-your-blessing every day, every minute, while avoiding, whenever possible, the belief that you need or deserve different circumstances. (Timothy Miller)

The problem is that contemporary Westerners have a very fragile sense of their identity, much less an identity that can rest in union with God.  Objectively, of course, we are already in union with God. (Richard Rohr)

Change your ways, give yourself a fresh coat of paint, convert yourself.  Do all this and you’ll find the cross before it finds you. (Thomas a’ Kempis)

 

 

Closing

 

You are the giver of all good things. All good things are sent from heaven above, rain and sun, day and night, justice and righteousness, bread to the eater and seed to the sower, peace to the old, energy to the young, joy to the babes.

 

We are takers, who take from you, day by day, daily bread, taking all we need as you supply, taking in gratitude and wonder and joy. And then taking more, taking more than we need, taking more than you give us, taking from our sisters and brothers, taking from the poor and the weak, taking because we are frightened, and so greedy, taking because we are anxious, and so fearful, taking because we are driven, and so uncaring.

 

Give us peace beyond our fear, and so end our greed. Give us well-being beyond our anxiety, and so end our fear. Give us abundance beyond our drivenness, and so end our uncaring. Turn our taking into giving…since we are in your giving image: Make us giving like you, giving gladly and not taking, giving in abundance, not taking, giving in joy, not taking, giving as he gave himself up for us all, giving, never taking. Amen.

 

(“We are Takers”, from Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, Searcy, p. 33)